Throughout his journey with the Fortune 500 computer giant NEC, a universal truth has revealed itself to Aalok Kumar. “Adversity does not build character,” says the President and CEO of NEC Corporation India. “That reveals it.”
Aalok’s journey began in March 2020, just as India’s first nationwide COVID-19 lockdown was imposed. This unprecedented event may have been the greatest challenge of his career, but he managed to turn this setback into an opportunity for NEC Corporation India to strategically align its business objectives with the purpose of the organization. By introducing a suite of innovative offerings amid the darkest times, NEC has demonstrated precisely how it is capable of orchestrating a brighter world.
“We were one of the few organizations to seamlessly embrace the digital working model as part of our cultural transition aligned with brand restructuring,” Aalok smiles, perhaps with a sense of relief. “I’m pretty optimistic about what this year will bring.”
Even a brief review of his illustrious 27-year career showcases Aalok’s results-driven approach and deep expertise in improving performance, expanding margins and overall business transformation. He has provided strategic direction to world renowned brands in Indian and international markets including Japan, APAC and EMEA.
“I started my career in financial services, moving through several industries including technology, healthcare, consumer, credit cards, lending, structured finance, non-performing loans, credit- lease and equity,” he says. “I was fortunate to have the chance to discover so many diverse sectors and to learn so many things. »
Over the years, Aalok has climbed the corporate ladder with his multidimensional skills, resilience and dedication. From humble beginnings as Sales Director at Castrol India in 1995 to global conglomerate General Electric (GE) in 2000, where he eventually led the brand’s transformation as CMO and Head – Strategic Initiatives, to become Chief Strategy Officer for Japan, Aalok has worked across geographies and functions to build holistic capabilities.
During his time at GE Capital, he held several leadership positions ranging from Director of Sales, Vice President – Finance, Vice President – Marketing for the Asian region and CEO for the Singapore market. His international experience expanded when the American multinational commissioned him to lead teams in some of the largest and most sophisticated geographies in the world, from Mumbai and New Delhi to Bangkok, Singapore, London and Tokyo.
In 2019, Aalok left GE to join consulting firm McKinsey & Company. As Senior Vice President, he led the mandate to deploy a suite of transformational approaches. There he developed distinct capabilities to deliver to both high growth and mature markets.
With such a stellar record, he was the obvious choice to lead NEC in India, which was about to enter its next phase of growth when Aalok came into the fold.
A convergence of ethics
It is no coincidence that NEC, a Japanese company with a strong Japanese spirit, decided to hire Aalok. Of all the years he spent abroad, he spent the most time in Tokyo, recounting it as one of his most treasured personal and professional experiences, and one that left an indelible impact on his personal leadership style.
“I appreciate the philosophy of a Japanese company,” he says. “One hundred percent quality and nothing less, total precision and nothing else. I have always believed and told this to many of my colleagues: if your name is on a project or a product or an initiative, it has to be gold standard. Nothing short.
Aalok’s time in Tokyo was spent between two Japanese national companies that were bought by an American conglomerate. The unique location allowed him to study the differences in management practices and approaches that accompanied the two cultures.
I want to build a business where women have the same voice as men; a culture where innovation is democratized.
“During my years in Japan, I became familiar with the work culture and the Japanese way of life,” he says. “My association with an American company in Japan has further helped me to embrace a unique cultural crossroads, now impossible to erase. I wondered then where the harmony lies between contemporary Western management practices and the technical expertise of a Japanese company?
The answer, it seems, is in his hands. By protecting the rich legacy of culture and heritage and merging it with contemporary practices and learnings from working across cultures, Aalok believes he is equipped to build a business that will be unique in its ability to win over the market – an organization he believes to be a prime example of true Indo-Japanese excellence.
“I want to build a business where women have the same voice as men; a culture where innovation is democratized is in the hallways of the organization rather than confined to the executive floors. The power of ideas should not be limited from top to bottom. They must be operated from the base.
So how do we create such a culture? Transparency, meritocracy, diversity and the foundation of an open culture – these are the elements that Aalok is determined to inject into NEC India.
Release change as a force
Aalok’s appointment to NEC India came at a time when fundamental changes in the workplace were already underway. Both at the management level and at the workforce level, the company has implemented policies and adapted to change with flexibility.
In April 2020, when uncertainty was at its height, the new CEO had the daunting task of leading more than 6,000 employees at the 70-year-old company. At the time, organizations were forced to implement strict measures as part of a contingency plan to respond to COVID-19. Aalok encouraged his team to focus on relevant solutions, improve their skills to meet the demands of the future, and emphasize innovation and research and development. His unwavering optimism, strategic thinking and meaningful efforts have helped him take the lead in creating seamless collaboration across different business units and functions.
I think the new normal has extended our ability to embrace the unknown. Even those most resistant to change have begun to accept it.
“I think the new normal has extended our ability to embrace the unknown,” he says. “Even those most resistant to change have started to accept it, and it will only get deeper. Amidst all this uncertainty, one thing is sure to change: the calibration of the workforce.
Aalok believes the current hybrid workplace culture has changed the psychology of the employee and their relationship to work. “I’m not talking about the employee’s relationship with their manager, management, or company,” he explains, “but rather the employee’s relationship with their own work.”
Inspire leadership in people
So far into the pandemic, it’s hard to define what that looks like. “There are so many ways to answer that,” he smiles. “One way is that different skill sets have emerged to become more critical than before. And if harnessed well by the organization, it can be hugely beneficial.
Another, he says, is that people and teams seem to have a much more positive attitude. “What we’ve seen is that everyone is willing to push themselves and go above and beyond to get the job done more effectively and efficiently,” he shares. “This change allows more things to be done much faster than ever before.”
But it’s access to what Aalok calls “evolutionary leadership” that has the potential to have the most impact on an employee’s learning. “It goes against the traditional working model, where people graduate, graduate, and get a job,” he says. “Progress changes too, a natural desire to constantly learn to evolve and expand your skills, especially in the fast-paced IT industry.”
In addition to technical skills, Aalok is a firm believer in the idea that dynamic and effective leadership exercised at all levels is at the heart of the best companies. “At the highest level, we need to provide visionary leadership to secure the long-term future of the business,” he insists. “But even on the front lines of the organization, employees need to provide contextual leadership — when you have enough data to make decisions.”
Likewise, senior and middle managers should provide situational leadership, leveraging their expertise and experience in the field. “At NEC India, we are investing heavily to bring this three-dimensional leadership to life across our organization.”
Over the past year, NEC India has spent more than 84,000 hours developing and training its staff. Part of this effort was the launch of LEAP, a new leadership academy designed to prepare senior executives and managers to become the leaders of tomorrow.
“To build a participatory mindset, leaders must genuinely value and respect people without any bias or discrimination,” says Aalok. “Allowing people to express themselves openly ultimately diversifies organizational culture.”
Our sense of purpose, which orchestrates a better world, isn’t just a brand statement – it’s what we wake up to every day.
Paving the way for growth
Under Aalok’s leadership, NEC India has taken center stage and is now a strong contender in many industries including telecommunications, submarine connectivity, logistics, transportation and smart manufacturing. While such results are admirable, they may simply be a consequence of the environment he has created within the company.
“We’re trying to create a talent pool and a workforce that takes pride in their sense of duty,” he says. “Our sense of purpose, which orchestrates a brighter world, isn’t just a brand statement – it’s what we wake up to every day.”
Working at NEC India is not just a way to make ends meet, he says. “We come here because we are fundamentally changing the lives of our customers and end users. This is how we make the world brighter every day. We make society better and more productive than we found it yesterday.
And when you put it like that, it’s easy to see how far NEC has risen to take advantage of its position among the best.
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